André Villas-Boas raised the possibility of introducing "feeder" teams into the English league structure recently. "The youth development system in England is not right, in my belief. The reserve leagues and youth levels are not competitive enough," said the Chelsea manager. Villas-Boas believes that having a Chelsea feeder side in the lower leagues would help bridge the gap between reserve standards and first-team football. He also wants to improve his club's youth development. John Terry, the last player to come through the Chelsea academy and become a first-team regular, is now in his thirties.
These are exciting times to be a young footballer coming through one of Europe's premier academies. This season has seen the launch of a new competition – the NextGen Series – pitting 16 of the continent's major clubs against each other in a teenage version of the Champions League. Spanish football expert Graham Hunter summed up the excitement best: "I find it impossible to understand why this brilliant but simple concept hasn't existed for years."
On October 20 a vote taken by Football League clubs agreed to proposals that will change the structure of youth football in England. While the deal ensures an increase in the level of funding towards academies for the next four years, criticisms of the plans have been quick to surface.
Manchester City's application for a new youth academy and training facility, covering 80 acres and set to cost £100 million, will be considered by the city council on December 22. It is perhaps the most audacious of the various methods by which clubs have sought to emulate Barcelona's La Masia academy. While the latter has evolved – it moved to a new location on June 30 as Masia-Centre de Formació Oriol Tort – and facilities all over the world have been refurbished and updated piecemeal, City are the only club attempting to drop an entire state-of-the-art complex on top of an already successful academy.
I wouldn’t recognise Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Southampton winger, if I saw him in the street. Thanks to the footballing gossip columns, I know that he’s 17 and the same kind of hot property Theo Walcott was in his Saints days, supposedly worth £10 million and interesting the very biggest English clubs. Ipswich’s Connor Wickham, perhaps better known, is another to be the subject of speculation on a close-season transfer. Should either make a move this summer they will be embarking on a well-trodden path.
Nicklas Bendtner, Giuseppe Rossi, Michael Chopra, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Danny Graham, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Adam Johnson: not a bad list of attacking talent. Five years ago, all of those were among the top goalscorers in the FA Premier Reserve League. In the Man Utd team that beat Tottenham in the play-off final at Old Trafford in May 2006 were a future World Cup winner (Gerard Piqué), a former European Cup winner (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer), a World Cup goalkeeper (Tim Howard) and a trio of current United stars (Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher). That summer I wrote in WSC 235 about the demise of reserve team football, from being a well-followed event in every club’s week, to an occasional irritant ignored by most. Things have got even worse.
More clubs than ever have pulled out of the three leagues this season. Four Premier League sides – Spurs, Stoke, Fulham and Birmingham – refused to play in the Premier Reserve League (PRL) while 31 of the 72 Football League clubs are nowhere to be seen in the Central League or Football Combination. Instead, there are six Conference clubs making up the numbers. Most clubs give the same reasons for withdrawing: the opposition are full of teenagers, games are played at non-League grounds and the fixtures come at inconvenient times. The first two could be solved by the clubs themselves and the third is invalid. Combination fixtures are postponed and altered at a whim anyway and with just 12 league games each, they should hardly be difficult to fit into a nine-month season.
The opt-outs play “reserve friendlies” instead – mainly Under-20 XIs playing each other on midweek afternoons on training ground pitches, often managed by the youth staff, not first-team coaches. Hardly the experience required to help prepare them for first-team football. One result of the FA’s new Elite Player Performance Plan (see Thanks for nothing, WSC 290) is the end of the PRL and further weakening of the historic Central League and Football Combination, perhaps beyond repair. Instead there is the FA Premier Development League (PDL), a specific programme for the 18-21 age group often overlooked at the smaller, under-staffed clubs.
Generations before mine watched the reserves play at home on Saturday afternoons while the first team were playing away. Until the last decade, reserve football was usually played on midweek evenings at main stadiums with a smattering of first-team players on show to four-figure crowds. Arsenal have retained that to an extent – their PRL games at Underhill are often lively affairs packed with young and vocal fans. But Barnet is deep in Arsenal territory. West Ham play their reserve games at Bishop’s Stortford, an hour’s drive from Upton Park. Nowadays most reserve games are for the obsessive fanatic, the ground-hopper or the shift-worker.
Some clubs still use the stiffs in the traditional sense. Leyton Orient and Gillingham play their home reserve games on their main ground, thus making it less of a humbling comedown for the senior players and giving their emerging youth teamers a taste of a bigger stage. By playing on a midweek afternoon, though, they save the cost of floodlights but guarantee a pitiful attendance.
The FA wants young players to be rehearsing for the professional game by playing weekly matches, preferably in front of partisan crowds. At the moment reserves face dingy dressing rooms, a muddy pitch and a few quips from isolated spectators dotted around a non-League ground. Gareth Southgate said recently that he played 112 reserve games before making his Crystal Palace debut at 21. That grounding toughened him up and Palace waited until he was ready. It would take an unfeasible six to eight seasons to get that experience now. And if he was at Palace they would be friendlies at training grounds, not competitive games at Selhurst Park.
The current average age of players in the PRL is 21, but there will be no age limit to the PDL. Instead it is expected to be manned by Under-21 players with no bar on older professionals making occasional appearances. Just like the current reserve leagues. Rugby league did something very similar a few years ago, replacing its Alliance (open age reserves) competition with an Under-20s Cup. But with each club allowed three overage players, you still get the occasional international veteran sticking out like a sore thumb. Consequently, any talent over the age of 20 that can’t get in the first team is shipped out on long-term loan or released altogether. Football will surely continue down the same route.
From WSC 291 May 2011
Glenn Hoddle seems an unlikely saviour, but one struggling club has survived due to a deal with his academy. Steve Wilson reports
The Spanish region of Andalucía, with its year-round sunshine, unspoiled beaches and sprawling vista of manicured golf courses, is long accustomed to English visitors. Some recent arrivals, however, are here for more than just a two-week getaway and the chance to improve their handicap. An unlikely alliance between a former England manager, a group of young players deemed surplus to requirement at British clubs and a lower league Spanish side has seen Los Ingleses welcomed with open arms in the unassuming town of Jerez.
Matt Nation enjoyed a tournament with 1,500 teams from 60 countries, but was disturbed by the precocious antics on show
After a month of the corporate-heavy stodge served up in South Africa, the 2010 Gothia Cup appeared to be just the right sort of light and fluffy dessert to cleanse the football tournament attendee’s palate. In the world’s largest youth team competition, many games took place on what looked like an expanse of waste ground converted into astroturf pitches in the heart of Gothenburg (there was some talk of the playing surface being “the best astroturf in the world”, but only in the same unfounded way as Danish-brewed lagers and English top-flight football are touted as being peerless).
Failure to gain league status can have an impact on all levels of a club. One area it affects is youth development funding, which is only allocated to clubs in the Football League. Matt Ramsay questions whether this is fair and highlights a non-League director who is trying to raise awareness of the problem
Last May’s Conference play-off final between Torquay United and Cambridge United represented a clash between two sides seeking to return to League Two after periods of non-League exile. Yet there was more at stake for the winner than just promotion and a considerable increase in television income.
Taylor Parkes reflects on a new book that paints a gloomy picture of how young players are treated in Britain
In 1997, concerned that English football was falling behind in terms of youth development, the FA brought in Howard Wilkinson (then, as now, the last English manager to win the League). His mission was to produce a document which would outline the problems and propose a fresh approach; the amusingly titled A Charter for Quality still forms the basis of our youth coaching system. Its changes were far-reaching: clubs would take sole charge of recruiting and developing young players, while the age at which kids could be taken on “full time” dropped from 14 to nine. In the first half of last season, just 66 graduates of Premier League academies appeared on Premier League teamsheets, many of them confirmed benchwarmers. What went wrong?